Helping The United Arab Emirates Assess Environmental Health Risks
UNC researchers will partner with the United Arab Emirates University's department of community medicine and with the RAND Corporation, a global public policy research institution.
In Abu Dhabi, UNC School of Public Health Dean Barbara K. Rimer, Dr.P.H., signed a two-year contract agreeing to provide the environmental and health assessment. The contract is for $7.8 million, about $5 million of which will be earmarked for the school.
The United Arab Emirates is a Middle Eastern federation of seven states bordering Saudi Arabia and Oman. The country, with a population of about 4.3 million, has significant oil and natural gas reserves and has a highly industrialized economy. Its gross domestic product per capita is currently fifth in the world and third in the Middle East, after Qatar and Kuwait.
"The U.A.E. is developing at an unprecedented pace and scale," said principal investigator Jacqueline MacDonald, Ph.D., assistant professor of environmental sciences and engineering in the School of Public Health. "In the past 40 years, it has gone from a small, mostly nomadic and seafaring economy to a major industrial nation. While all the developments have brought some vast improvements in public health, they have also brought some concerns about risks due to environmental hazards that come with an industrialized economy."
MacDonald and the team of international specialists in environmental sciences and public health from UNC, RAND Corporation and the United Arab Emirates University will conduct technical analyses to assess and prioritize environmental health risks. The analyses will involve developing computer-based models to estimate environmental exposures and the burden of disease caused by the most important environmental risk factors, including both indoor and outdoor air pollution (especially emissions stemming from oil and gas production), water pollution (both coastal and groundwater) and exposures to hazardous substances in the workplace. At the same time, an epidemiological study will provide a nationwide assessment of possible links between the environment and the health of the people living there.
"The government leaders in the U.A.E. are being proactive and forward-thinking by analyzing the environment now, before serious health impacts emerge," MacDonald said. "We're hoping to find ways to help them minimize damage to people's health and protect the environment."
The secretary general of the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi, H. E. Majid Al Mansouri, said that developing a strategy for environmental health is an essential tool to support policy-making, setting priorities on the basis of evidence and enhancing access to information and facilitating communication with the public.
The research team will work with citizens and key organizations such as the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi, its national partners and the World Health Organization to collect data about the nation's current environmental health risks. Based on scientific assessments that will determine the distribution of environmental hazards, researchers will help United Arab Emirates leaders set priorities and develop policies for mitigating the health risks to people in the country.
United Arab Emirates officials told UNC that the school's combination of environmental sciences and engineering with public health disciplines, such as epidemiology and health policy, was appealing to them. Other schools competing for the contract did not have environmental engineers and public health specialists in one school. Interdisciplinary approaches are hallmarks of UNC as a whole and the School of Public Health's successes. Recent advances in modeling the effects of air pollution on respiratory health and examining the effects of exposure to contaminants in potable water were examples of the types of collaborations cited in the school's proposal to officials.
"Our close interactions with researchers at the U.A.E. University in Al Ain were crucial for the success of this highly integrated and collaborative proposal," said co-principal investigator Ivan Rusyn, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of environmental sciences and engineering. "Collegiality and integration of local scientific expertise are necessary for achieving the goals of this major research effort and we are delighted with the opportunity for mutually beneficial and rewarding relations."
The work proposal is broken into five tasks. MacDonald will lead the team conducting the situational analysis and rapid risk assessment along with Henry Willis, Ph.D., from the RAND Corporation. MacDonald and Jason West, Ph.D., assistant professor of environmental sciences and engineering, will lead the team conducting predictive modeling of the environmental burden of disease. MacDonald also will lead the team developing a strategic plan and action plan, along with John Graham, Ph.D., of the RAND Corporation.
Rusyn, who is also assistant professor in the toxicology curriculum in the UNC School of Medicine and a member of both the Carolina Center for Genome Sciences and the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, will lead the team assessing the health effects of environmental agents. Andrew Olshan, Ph.D., professor and chair of the School of Public Health's epidemiology department and research associate professor and research professor, respectively, in the School of Medicine's departments of surgery and otolaryngology/head and neck surgery, will lead the pilot epidemiological study, along with Tar Ching Aw, chair of the department of community medicine at the United Arab Emirates University in Al-Ain, Abu Dhabi Emirate.
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